Past tense versus present tense (tip 56) Reply

Any sensible person would probably accept that the past tense and the present tense are equally good and which is best will depend on the piece of writing and the author. After all, one needn’t look far for fine novels in the present tense: think Cormac McCarthy, J.M. Coetzee, Hilary Mantel, and many others. But D.D. Johnston is not a sensible person. In this video, he argues for the superiority of the past tense.

Video transcript follows below:

Which is better for writing fiction: the present or the past tense? Well it depends and blah blah blah. But it doesn’t really because the past tense is brilliant!

The present tense is historically recent, very vogue, and – I agree with Ursula le Guin – massively over-used. It was popularised by John Updike’s Rabbit Run, which was published as recently as 1960. Updike told the Paris Review that “The present tense was in part meant to be an equivalent of the cinematic mode of narration,” and there’s a body of opinion that maintains the present tense is more immediate than the old-fashioned past tense. But I think there are several advantages to the past tense.

First, I’d contend that the main claim in favour of the present tense is false: I’m not sure it is more immediate than the past tense. In Steering the Craft, Ursula le Guin writes:

I think the mere name, “present tense,” leads some writers to assume that present-time narration implies immediacy — a story-time close to the reader’s present. Therefor they assume that use of the past tense implies a remoter time. This is naive. It doesn’t work that way. I’ve read effective stories in which recent events were told in the past tense and the present tense was used for what happened a long time ago. The tenses have so little connotation of actual presentness or pastness that, in that respect, they’re interchangeable.

But probably the most thorough attack on the present tense comes in a splendid book by David Jauss: On Writing Fiction: Rethinking conventional wisdom about the craft. Jauss presents a whole chapter on this topic, but here I want to mention just one main advantage of the past tense: because the present tense is designed to give the impression of immediacy, it makes it harder to present events out of chronological sequence, or to vary the relationship between story time and narrative time. A narrator describing what happened in the past can describe those events in whatever order she chooses, but if everything’s happening “now,” it’s much harder to go back and forward in time, or to slow the action and then speed it up. It’s also very hard to deploy prolepsis (foreshadowing) in the present tense, especially in the first person; a past tense narrator can note that “At that time I knew nothing of the fate that would befall me,” but there’s no way that a present tense narrator can drop a similar hook.

So, I urge you: reconsider that faithful but neglected friend, the trusty past tense.

Thanks for watching, and good luck with your writing.

The thumbnail for this video uses an image by Corey Templeton. It is covered by a Creative Commons license, and you can find more of his work here:

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